Sport

Irish hockey stopper tells us about fulfilling his lifelong Olympic dream

SportBy Sean McGoldrick
David Harte
David Harte

IN the early hours of an otherwise nondescript Sunday morning last October, David Harte learned that he had achieved his lifetime sporting ambition – from his girlfriend Lynn!

For the first time in 108 years the Irish men’s hockey team has qualified for the Olympics. 

Kinsale native Harte – who the International Hockey Federation named as Goalkeeper of the Year in their Hockey Stars 2015 awards – will skipper the Irish squad which includes his twin brother Conor.

Four years ago Ireland came within seconds of securing a coveted spot at the London Olympics, only to concede a late goal to South Korea in the final qualifying tournament in Dublin. 

“I can only speak for myself, but for me it was the toughest moment of my sporting career,” David recalls.

Though redemption came last autumn, it was by no means straightforward. Despite beating two of the game’s super powers, Malaysia and Pakistan, in a qualifying tournament, they only finished fifth overall.

Essentially they need other countries to do them a favour if they were to secure one of the 12 places available in Rio. Ultimately, everything hinged on the outcome of the Oceania Cup final between the number one ranked nation in the world Australia and their next-door neighbours New Zealand.

While most of his Irish squad gathered in a BBC studio in Belfast to watch a live transmission of the game, Harte was in his apartment in the Dutch city of Utrecht. 

“I had decided not to follow the game so I just tried to get some sleep, but my girlfriend Lynn was secretly checking the Twitter feed under the blanket. Eventually she turned around and asked ‘how does it feel that your team is going to Rio?’” Australia had won 3-2.

Less than 24 hours after the opening ceremony at next month’s Games,  Harte will lead out Ireland in the Olympic Hockey Centre in Rio for their first match in the tournament against India. By any standards it has been an epic journey for the Harte twins.

The story begins in Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone, where their father Kieran hails from. He was a goalkeeper, but in Gaelic football. He won an Ulster U-21 championship medal with Tyrone and later played for the senior side which was beaten by Donegal in the 1972 Ulster final.

Later he married a Kerry woman and the couple settled outside Kinsale, Co. Cork where they raised a family of four, twins David and Conor and sisters Ciara and Emer.

Initially the twins played Gaelic football and hurling with Courcey Rovers and the hockey bug didn’t bite until they enrolled in Bandon Grammar School.

“I started off with Conor in first year and I enjoyed it because I we had the hand-eye coordination from hurling, but I was still missing something. I saw a few of my classmates playing in goal and I decided to try it out and was hooked from day one.”

Harte is 6ft5in and when fully clad out in the protective gear he’s an imposing figure. And with a ball whizzing around at speed of 130 kilometres an hour, the job requires nerves of steel.

“It is a fine line between bravery and stupidity, but at least we’re better protected than hurling goalkeepers,” he says.

Virtually from day one he was a high achiever in the sport, earning the  first of his 154 Irish caps when he was just 18. And he was ambitious. 

“I’ve always set myself goals and even though no Irish hockey team had qualified for the Olympics since 1908 one of my career goals was to compete at the Olympics.”

The crushing disappointment Ireland endured before the London Games only reinforced his determination. 

“It spurred that group of players to go for it again and it make the qualification all the more sweeter,” says the 28-year-old.

Harte studied in DCU where he qualified as a biology and physical education teacher and he was pleasantly surprised to learn that he could earn his living as a professional hockey player – provided he emigrated.

He joined the Utrecht-based SV Kampong club which competes in the Dutch professional league, as well as the hockey equivalent of the Champions League. 

Last season they missed out on winning their domestic trophy on a golden goal, but secured more significant silverware last May, winning the Champions League in the final in Barcelona.

Conor also plays the game professionally for the Belgian based Royal Racing Club de Bruxelles. In all,  seven of the 15-member squad are based abroad – in Belgium, Holland and the UK. While their clubs are contractually obliged to release them for international duty, it is more problematic for the home-based players.

“Those of us based abroad have an opportunity to earn a decent living playing the game, but the lads who have full-time jobs are either taking unpaid leave or quit their jobs in order to train and participate in the Olympics.”

David Harte in action

David has also played in India, where hockey is second only to cricket in terms of popularity and matches can attract crowds of 10,000. 

During the indoor hockey season in Holland, their top players can be recruited to play in a special league featuring teams based in six of India’s major cities. 

Since 2013, Harte has been recruited by Mumbai-based clubs and is the eighth most expensive player in the competition and the most expensive goalkeeper. Initially ‘bought’ for a fee of $11,000 in 2013, the Dabang Mumbai franchise had to pay $65,000 dollars to secure his services for the 2016 season.

“One has to live there and move around between the cities to experience what life is like in India. It is a phenomenal experience, both from a hockey and life experience.”

Conor plays with the same Mumbai club and when the pair – both of whom have blond hair – walk down the street in India they tend to turn heads and are the subject of countless selfies.

For the next month, though, the focus is Rio. Ireland are in Pool A along with the Netherlands, Germany, Argentina, India and Canada. They face five games in seven days, with the top four qualifying for the knockout phase.

“Obviously we will approach each game individually, but our main objective is to reach the quarter-finals.”

While Ireland had to depend on Australia to secure their place in Rio, they proved their mettle on the European stage last year when they won the bronze medal in the European Championships. Better still, they beat Great Britain to secure the medal, with Harte securing the Goalkeeper of the Tournament award.

The entire family is united behind Ireland as they get ready to take their place among the top dozen  nations in the world.

However, things could change in September if Kerry and Tyrone end up meeting All-Ireland final. 

It gets pretty tough in our house when it comes around to the final and they are playing each other,” he smiles.